I didn't intend to become an American Idol fan, and I certainly didn't intend to start writing about my fandom. But life is full of surprises.
The first surprise came because I tuned in to Idol''s tenth season early this year to see if Steven Tyler could hack it as a judge. (He can, sort of. He communicates exclusively through a stoned hipster word salad that bears only a vague resemblance to English as it's commonly spoken. Attempts to decipher his utterances are futile but fun.) What kept me watching through the following weeks was an unprecedentedly impressive bunch of contestants, many of who not only had great voices but seemed to know how to use them.
That there is a distinction between "having a great voice" and "being a great singer" is something Idol's
previous judges long failed to grok. Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul are
the kind of people who actually think Mariah Carey is a better singer
than Patti Smith. (She's not.) Steven Tyler, J-Lo, and Randy Jackson are
not of that ilk, and they managed to drag what looked like a few
honest-to-goodness song stylists through the auditions process.
One guy in particular. Jacob Lusk. I saw him sing "God Bless the Child" and thought he sounded like some kind of miraculous cross between Antony Hegarty and Solomon Burke. (Check out that "Child" clip, plus his version of "A House Is Not a Home" and "You're All I Need to Get By.") He was a church-reared phenom, singing like a man in the grips of a powerful possession trance.
He was in the bottom three last week, as he should have been. This year's Idol's contestants might be better than usual, but they're getting worse in a hurry. The Idol machine is turning them into narcissists, and Lusk's transformation has occurred with terrible, shocking rapidity. His bizarre presong video montage
last week suggests he's under the impression that the American people
love him not because of his kickass soul attack but because of his
preening religiosity. (We don't.)
The descent of a brilliant
singer into navel-worshiping solipsism is a genuine tragedy I'd have
been inclined to mourn in private. What made me want to start writing
about Idol was another tragedy, this one mostly make-believe: the dismissal from the show of Pia Toscano.
Pia Toscano is a young woman from Howard Beach, New York, with one of the most physically impressive sets of vocal cords
ever to appear on national television. Her range is large, if not
freakishly so, and her tone is breathtaking: smooth and dark in the
lower registers, brightening into precise cannonades of golden sound up
top. Her voice is extraordinary.
But Pia Toscano isn't a very
good singer. Her utter absence of personality makes her hero, Celine
Dion, look like Johnny Rotten by comparison. Every one of her qualities
-- from her sterile melodic sensibility to her penchant for pant suits
-- makes her seem 20 years older than she is. In each of her very solid performances, she's come off as a pitch-hitting machine, destined for a lucrative and meaningless career in the highest reaches of AOR.
I'm blogging about Idol because
Toscano's dismissal from the show has been treated like a national
tragedy. The night it happened, Jennifer Lopez had an on-camera
breakdown, Randy Jackson bowed his head and wept, and even Steven Tyler
seemed to become sufficiently aware of his surroundings to crack a
frown. In the considerable media devoted to Idol, there has been a unanimous cry of "foul." Tom Jicha, the television writer at the Sun-Sentinel, came particularly unhinged. "Idol voters make their worst mistake ever" was the title of his resulting column. In his report, he called the vote an "unbelievable," "unacceptable," and "unjust" "travesty."
it wasn't. Nor was it simply the result of libidinous teenyboppers
voting their crushes. Rather, it was the result of a viewership that
wants to watch musical performances that amount to more than a display
of vocal athleticism. If that's all America wanted out of her pop stars,
the biggest and more relevant hitmakers of the past 50 years would have
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But they weren't, and they shouldn't have been. So I'm gonna start blogging about Idol on the County Grind just so that somebody putting their words in public will evaluate the Idol kids on something other than the physics of their throats. Tonight, eight contestants go head to head. I'll write more after the show.